GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Militants holding an Israeli soldier demanded Saturday the release of 1,000 prisoners and a halt to Israel’s Gaza offensive, complicating efforts to resolve the crisis before it boils over into major fighting.
The latest demand came after Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Israel’s military action was aimed at toppling the Hamas-led government, but maintained he is working with mediators toward a resolution.
Israel, meanwhile, kept up the pressure Friday in Gaza, destroying the interior minister’s office and targeting a car carrying militants in an airstrike. Israel also said it attacked a militant cell, killing a local Islamic Jihad leader – the first reported death in the offensive.
The U.N. Security Council began an emergency debate Friday. The Palestinians asked the United Nations’ most powerful body to condemn Israel’s actions and order a halt to the Israeli offensive. But no resolution was circulated, apparently because of opposition by the U.S., Israel’s closest ally.
Early today, the militants holding the soldier issued a new set of demands, calling on Israel to halt its offensive and ordering the release of 1,000 prisoners. The gesture appeared to be aimed at boosting support in the broader Arab world.
The demands were laid out in a joint statement by the militant wing of the ruling Hamas party, and two smaller militant groups with close ties to Hamas – the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam. The three groups have claimed responsibility for Sunday’s abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid.
Earlier this week, the same groups called for the release of all Palestinian women and minors held by Israel in exchange for information about Shalit. Today’s statement, like the earlier one, did not promise to release the soldier or give any information about his condition.
Haniyeh urged his people to remain steadfast. Though he did not directly address Israel’s demand that militants hand over the abducted soldier, he implied the government would not trade him for eight Palestinian Cabinet ministers detained by Israel on Thursday.
He also accused Israel of using the soldier’s abduction as a pretext for launching a major offensive with the aim of bringing down his government.
“This total war is proof of a premeditated plan,” he said in his first public appearance since Shalit, 19, was captured Sunday in a militant raid on an army post in Israel that sparked the crisis and sent Hamas’ top leaders into hiding.
Israel sent troops into southern Gaza on Wednesday – the first major raid into the territory since Israeli soldiers pulled out last year after a 38-year occupation – and began a wave of airstrikes across the coastal strip.
The United Nations said a strike that destroyed Gaza’s only power plant had pushed the territory to the edge of a humanitarian crisis.
The Bush administration called on the Palestinians to free Shalit and on Israel to practice restraint.
“We are encouraged by the fact that the Israelis are standing down in Gaza and that Hamas is talking openly about repatriating the soldier, and we continue to watch the developments,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
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